Dolmades (Stuffed Grape Leaves) with Tahini Sauce

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Happy Wednesday!

I went to a Greek restaurant with my mother-in-law a few weeks ago, and we had Dolmades, stuffed rice grape leaves, as an appetizer. I totally forgot about how much I love these little bundles of joy! A week later, I made them at home. It was a great rainy day project as it took about an hour and a half, but my husband and I have been eating them all week.

I love wine, so grapes and I are definitely good friends, but often the leaf of the grape is forgotten–it is a wonderful vessel for stuffing filling whether it be rice, ground beef/lamb, or an exciting combination of both!

They’re healthy, summery, and versatile. The ones I made have ground beef in them as well, but these are just as good simply with rice. You have the vegetarian/vegan flexibility with stuffed grape leaves. They’re paleo, low-carb, gluten-free, and all other hyphenated diet terms galore. These are good for you and taste good–often times, the both are not possible, but this is one fabulous exception.

Grape leaves are found abound in the Middle East/Mediterranean regions of the world. I’ve had the Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, and Palestinian versions, and they all have the slightest variant that makes the grape leave uniquely their own.

Greek Style (Dolmades, Dolmathakia): Lots of lemon, typically prepared with mint and dill

Turkish Style (Dolma, Sarma): Warmed spices (Currants, cinnamon, all spice) and a bit of sugar

Lebanese Style (Warak akish) : Usually lamb and/or ground beef, lemon juice, tomato paste/pomegranate molasses, some warm spices

Palestinian Style (Warak enab mehshi): Mainly Lebanese style with ghee (butter), sometimes parsley

**And I think Armenians do a stuffed cabbage roll similar to a grape leaf, so it’s an international delight!***

For my grape leaves, I went in the Greek direction with an Indian and Lebanese approach. I know Indians do not make grape leaves, but I decided to add Garam Masala to my sauteed onions to incorporate my version of the aforementioned “warmed spices”.

These are great to make for a party and/or picnic as a make-ahead dish. You can eat these cold, room temperature, or hot. Again, regional approaches vary here–I find that cold is popular among the Greeks and Turkish whereas the Lebanese and Palestinian people tend to serve them warm to hot. It’s totally up to you.

You can use fresh grape leaves if you can find them, but it’s just as easy to use jarred grape leaves. Fresh grape leaves must be boiled, and they must have the main stem removed–this is not edible! If your local grocery store does not carry grape leaves, I ordered mine online through Amazon.

Some people find the preservatives/brine off-putting, which makes some people not want to eat these. But if you properly rinse off each leaf before you roll it, it should take away most of the acidity. Besides, squeezing a lemon right before serving is the right tang it needs–not from sodium benzoate. The fresh lemon really brings it together, and if you make a Tahini sauce (or buy it from a reputable place, such as Trader Joe’s), you’ll get this delicious lemony and garlic combination that is perfect.

Ingredients

  • 7-8 cups of chicken broth (you may use water, but chicken broth will impart more flavor)
  • 3 lemons
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • One 16-ounce jar fresh small grape leaves in brine (about 70 leaves)
  • 1 cup uncooked short-grain rice (I use Basmati–it’s the best!)
  • 1-2 medium-large onions, finely diced
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pounds lean ground beef or lamb (or a mixture of both)
  • 1 bunch fresh dill, chopped (you may add some mint, but I did not)
  • 1 tablespoon of Garam Masala (optional, but it was my own Indian twist)

Let’s get rollin’!

  1. Remove grape leaves out of the jar. Place all leaves in a colander and rinse/drain very well in warm water. In addition to draining off all the liquid, I individually wash off each leaf before I roll it. If you have leaves that are damaged or ripped, set those aside for layering on the bottom of the pot.
  2.  Sauté the onions in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until translucent, not browned. Throw in the rice into the pan and toast the rice a bit. You are not cooking the rice–you are simply imparting flavor. The rice will cook inside the leaf, so you could also not saute the rice and simply mix it with the meat if you’re short on time, but go the extra mile. 🙂
  3. In a bowl, combine the onions, ground beef/lamb (if you’re using) rice, remaining olive oil, dill, juice of 1 lemon, and pepper. Mix well by hand.
  4. Once the filling is well incorporated, gently separate one leaf and place it shiny-side down on a work surface. Place a pinch (up to a teaspoon) of the filling on the leaf at the point where the stem joined the leaf. DO NOT OVERFILL YOUR LEAVES–THEY WILL EXPLODE!
  5. Roll the leaf like you would a cigar.  You are folding the mixture up and then folding in the sides, tucking them in. Fold up the bottom of the leaf over the filling, then each side inward in parallel folds, and roll up the leaf. The roll should be firm, not tight, as the filling will expand during cooking. Repeat until all the filling has been used.
  6. Repeat this about 70 times (I am not kidding–ask for help!)
  7. Layer the torn/damaged leaves until all are in the pot so that the bottom is covered. Place the rolled up grape leaves all along the bottom and stack them in alternate directions for the most support.
  8. Once you have all your leaves in the pot, place a plate on top to keep the leaves from floating.
  9. Add the chicken stock to the pot to cover the leaves. Add more or less as needed.
  10. Bring the liquid to a gentle boil, add the remaining juice from the 1 1/2 lemons, reduce heat to low and simmer for approximately 50 to 70 minutes. Keep the lid on–otherwise, they will not properly steam.
  11. Check to see if done–if the rice has cooked, they are done. If not, continue cooking for another 10 minutes and check again.
  12. Enjoy while they are warm, leave out for room temperature, or refrigerate. My husband and I like them cold for a picnic. 🙂
  13. Serve with a fresh squeeze of a lemon slice, and dip into garlic tahini sauce (or hummus like sauce).

Garlic Tahini Sauce (If you want to make it versus buy it in the store)

Ingredients

 

  • 1 cup tahini sesame seed paste (I prefer the paste made from light colored seeds)
  • 3/4 cup lukewarm water, or more for consistency
  • 3 cloves raw garlic (or 5 cloves roasted garlic for some sweetness–mmm!)
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (or more to taste)
  • 1/4 tsp salt (or more to taste)

Directions

Combine above ingredients in blender or food processor, adding the liquid gradually to make a smooth consistency.

 

 

Pork and Poblano Stuffed Mini Bell Peppers with Melted Jack Cheese

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Update 5/5/20: I made a Youtube Tutorial making these peppers. Check it out by clicking here!

Happy Saturday!

I am not making excuses, but I have not blogged in a while because I have been super overwhelmed with life. I’ve moved back to Pennsylvania from North Carolina; this consumed a lot of my free time. I also started teaching summer school and have been booked up with weddings galore! In fact, my best friend is getting married tomorrow, so I need to finish this post quickly so I can attend to her needs. I have to be ready on standby!

Speaking of celebration, I think the best foods to eat are hor d’oeuvres which to me simply means fancy finger food. There’s something to be said about food that requires no silverware or linen. These peppers are a great appetizer for a crowd mainly because of their size! If you have never worked with a mini bell pepper, I highly recommend it. They are colorful, fun, and they cook in no time at all. They have all the sweetness of your conventional bell pepper, but they are “fun-sized.” They are quite the party.

The flavor can be as intense or as relaxed as you want it to be, but if you like regular stuffed peppers, you know that spiciness is not necessarily a requirement. I use a poblano pepper and ground pork to stuff these peppers. I have also done a rendition of this recipe adding leftover saffron rice and some corn, so if you have any of these handy, by all means, add it! These peppers are small, so they can’t contain too much, but if you’re like me, you’ll do open heart surgery and make sure each pepper is maxed out in its capacity.

I will say that if you don’t have dainty fingers, you might find stuffing these peppers to be slightly tedious. A conventional stuffed pepper takes hardly no time to prepare because the pepper is about the size of a hand. Stuffing these little guys are a bit of an art form, but it’s worth it. This would be a fun recipe to make with a friend–divide and conquer!

I made these for a fourth of July party; I tamed the spices to a mild taste level so people wouldn’t have sweat more than they would already on a 90 degree day; however, if you like spicy food, go ahead and chop up a jalapeño or a habanero alongside with the poblano to bring up the heat. You could also add more spices to your taste level. Make sure you taste your filling before you put it in the pepper! Tasting is key.

I think what also makes these peppers very tasty is the fact they have a roasted flavor from being first sautéed in a bath of olive oil in a frying pan. Cooking the peppers first, not just throwing them in the oven, assures perfect tenderness and flavor development.

Let’s get this party started! These would be perfect for a Mexican themed party; I first made these for a Cinco de Mayo recipe, but these are perfectly suited for any summer celebration. 🙂 I doubled the recipe when I made this last to make about 50 peppers, but this is the scaled down version for a smaller gathering.

Ingredients
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound assorted baby bell peppers (about 24)
1 small onion, diced
1 poblano chile pepper, seeded and diced (Remember–you can add a jalapeño or habanero to kick these up!)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder**
1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder**
Kosher salt
1/2 pound ground pork
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional–I personally am not a HUGE fan of cilantro, but it fits here)
3 ounces jack cheese, diced (about 3/4 cup)**(Feel free to use more cheese. That never hurts

**-(The ancho and chipotle powders are very distinctive in flavor, but I will say they are optional if you don’t feel like running to the store–you can use regular chile powder, but these two have more authentic Mexican profile)

Directions

1.) First, prep your ingredients. Dice your poblano (or other spicy peppers) and onion finely. Next, mince your garlic finely.

2.) Once your ingredients are prepped, heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the baby bell peppers (whole) in a single layer and cook, turning, until the skins blister and start browning. Depending on your stovetop, it could take anywhere from 5-10 minutes. You don’t want to overcrowd the pan. Make sure you flip them and see a slight char. You should also towards the end be able to feel with a fork if they are soft and tender (not overly soft, but enough to bend and not be raw.)

3.) Once you’re done cooking the peppers, use the same pan and add the onion and poblano. If you need more olive oil, add it before sautéeing the onion and poblano. Make sure the onion is translucent before adding the garlic, cumin, oregano, ancho and chipotle chile powders and 1 teaspoon salt to the skillet. The whole mixture should be tender in a little under ten minutes.

4.) Next, raise the heat to medium high and add the pork. Cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the final mixture cool.
5.) While the mixture is cooling, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

6.) Here’s the fun part: stuffing the peppers! Make a slit in each baby bell pepper with a knife, cutting from stem to tip. Once slit open, use your index finger to scoop out the few seeds that are in there and to carefully make a little room for the filling.

7.) Crumble the meat mixture into small bits, then stir in the cilantro. Stuff 2 to 3 teaspoons of the meat mixture into each pepper using your fingers or a small spoon; transfer to a baking sheet.

8.) Put a piece of jack cheese on top of each individual pepper. Cut each piece of cheese so it fits inside the pepper(cubes work well or long strips). You may stuff the cheese so that it is tucked all inside, or you may just put the slice cheese right on top and have it melt all over if you’re in a rush.
9.) Bake until the peppers are hot and the cheese melts, about 10 minutes. Once the peppers come out, sprinkle kosher salt on the peppers (just a pinch.)

10.) Eat these peppers immediately. Have a margarita with salt on your rim to complement this fiesta

. 🙂